Nishant Choksi for Reader's Digest
Come on in! Busy? Me? No! Sit right down here in my favorite chair and keep me up all night and drink all my liquor. Can I run out and kill our last chicken and fry her up for you? No? Wouldn’t take a minute. Are you sure? Oh, don’t let the chicken hear you. She’ll be so disappointed.
What can I do to make you comfortable?
You want me to tell you about Southern hospitality?
It is true that I have long lived largely in the North but am Southern. So I have a certain perspective. I have never gotten over the sight of whatever it was that was served to me as fried chicken one night in Akron.
“This is fried chicken?” I asked the waiter. He looked at it. “I think so,” he said. I rest my case. But that doesn’t mean there is no such thing as Northern hospitality. True, it is possible to meet with a less than heartwarming reception up north.
I remember one Sunday morning in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I went to a cafeteria to get coffee and a doughnut before meeting a friend. I took a ticket from a ticket machine, then ordered from the woman behind the steam table, who was gazing with angst down into a vat of scrambled eggs. I was tempted to tell her I agreed that scrambled eggs should never be assembled in vat-size proportions, but she seemed to be thinking about something even worse. Without speaking or even looking up, she served me and punched my ticket to show how much I owed. I then presented the ticket to the woman at the cash register.
Everything seemed to be in order. I wasn’t expecting anything more than a smooth transaction, but I was expecting that, a smooth transaction.
The woman at the cash register looked at my ticket, then raised her eyes as though in supplication. “Jaysus Murray and Jeosuph,” she cried, pursing her lips unevenly like Humphrey Bogart. “Why do all you people come in on weekends?”
That was 50 years ago. To this day, I don’t know what was wrong.
But I wouldn’t call that an example of Northern hospitality, exclusively.
In Nashville, Tennessee, I cultivated a hamburger joint for weeks, ordering the same thing every time. Finally, I came in and said, “The usual.”
“You mean ‘the regular,’” the counter person, named Opaline, said.
I thought I meant “the usual.” I thought I was the regular. But I didn’t argue. “The regular, then,” I said.
“In your case,” she said, “what’s that?”
Still, Southern hospitality is an institution. Before air-conditioning, climate was a factor. In the South, people were more likely to be sitting out on the porch when folks showed up. You couldn’t pretend not to be home when there you were, sitting on the porch. You could pretend to be dead, but then you couldn’t fan yourself.
Even today, rhetoric is a factor. The salesperson in Atlanta may give you just as glazed a look as the one in Boston. But the former is more likely to say, “These overalls are going to make your young one look cute as a doodlebug’s butt.” Southerners still derive energy from figures of speech, as plants do from photosynthesis.
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Northern hospitality can be summed up thusly: You walk into a dry cleaner’s for the 30th time, and the proprietor, recognizing you at last, says, “You again!” If you are willing to accept that he is never going to welcome you, then you’re welcome. The advantage of this form of Northern hospitality is that it works irritation right into the equation, up front. Let’s face it: People irritate one another. Especially hosts and guests.
Irritation is a part of Southern hospitality too. Say you run into a Southerner where you live in the North. And you take a thorn out of his paw or something, and he declares, “I want you to come visit us! And sleep in my bed! Me and Mama will take the cot! And bring your whole family!”
“Yes, do come,” says the Southern wife. “We would love it.”
“And I want you to hold my little baby daughter on your lap!” her husband cries. “And Mama will cook up a whole lot of groceries, and we’ll all eat ourselves half to death!”
And sure enough, you show up. And the Southerners swing wide the portal, blink a little, and then recognize you and start hollering, “You came! Hallelujah! Sit down here! How long can you stay? Oh no, you got to stay longer than a week; it’ll take that long just to eat the old milk cow. Junior, run out back and kill Louisa. Milk her first.
“Here, let us carry all your bags—oh, isn’t this a nice trunk—upstairs and …”
You are a little disappointed to note that there is no veranda.
“Oh, we lost our veranda in the Waw. Which Waw? Why, the Waw with you all. But that’s all right.”
And you are prevailed upon to stay a couple of weeks, and you yield to the Southerners’ insistence that you eat three huge meals a day and several snacks to “tide you over”—and finally you override the Southerners’ pleas that you stay around till the scuppernongs get ripe, and they say, “Well, I guess if you got your heart set on running off and leaving us,” in a put-out tone of voice, and they pack up a big lunch of pecan pie and collard greens for you to eat on the way home, and after you go through about an hour and a half of waving and repeating that you really do have to go and promising to come back, soon, and to bring more relatives next time, you go back north.
And the Southerners close their door. And they slump back up against it. And they look at each other wide-eyed. And they say, shaking their heads over the simplemindedness of Yankees, “They came!”
“And like to never left!”
“And ate us out of house and home!”